In Cooperation with Microbes 1/4: Microbes are a Prerequisite for Life

The word microbe is one to give many people creeps - here's why it shouldn't

In cooperation with microbes:

2/4: Microbes keep us healthy
3/4: Let’s get exposed!
4/4: Food, clean water, and buildings from microbes


On soap commercials on TV, microbes are portrayed as disgusting looking creatures that cause trouble in our lives in many ways. The germs must be destroyed, a young mother states to her child. A pacifier that has been on the floor must be boiled or the little devils will attack.

But are all germs microbes and all microbes germs? Have we gone too far in our desire to disinfect everything and get rid of microbes from our dinner tables and our skin?


Without microbes, there would be no circle of life


Microbiologist Aija Luoma

Besides the fear of microbes, another trend is reigning the western societies: naturality.

We try to eat natural food, live according to our natural circadian rhythm and breath natural air. Why are we then so afraid of microbes that have been part of our living environment since the beginning of time? Within the groups of microbes there are, of course, also bad guys: pathogens. However, we would not be able to live without microbes that make diverse nature, disease resistance and, essentially, the existence of life possible.

In the end, what are microbes and what is their significance for nature and the health of humans? The first part of this series of four blog posts will focus on the effects that microbes have on the diversity and well-being of nature.

Millions of microbes make nature flourish

Microbes are micro-organisms, bacteria, mould and yeast fungi, virus and archeons. According to some estimates the are almost million different species of microbes and they can be found everywhere: on the keyboard, tab water, on a meadow and at the roots of an alder. “Microbes are everywhere where they have not been destroyed on purpose”, defines microbiologist Aija Luoma from the Environmental Laboratory of Jyväskylä.

Luoma has tens of years of experience of microbes. On her current job she acts as the quality manager of the laboratory and is responsible for the microbiological analytics.

In a sterile environment microbes have either been removed from there or they don’t naturally exist there. “An operating theatre is a sterilized environment but there are also naturally sterile spaces such as the insides of human body that the microbes can’t reach through the cavities. Also the flesh of fruits is sterile. All the other places are populated by the microbes”, Luoma explains.

There are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of different species of microbes and they are all natural. “Each microbe has a cell, and at least this far we have not been able to produce them synthetically.”


Atypical circumstances can cause changes in the profile of microbes that for their part can cause harmful symptoms to humans

Luoma points out the significance of microbes for the well-being of nature and soil. Without microbes there would be no circle of life. “The food of animals and humans consists of sugars, other carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Thanks to microbes these nutrients are broken down back to nitrates, sulfates, carbon dioxide, and water that the plants will use as their nourishment”. Without this circle of nutrients there would be no nature and fertile land. No less than 95 % of the biomass of the oceans consists of microbes. Microbes form in the sea algae and plankton that are an essential part of the population of the seas. The algae produce a big percentage of the oxygen of the atmosphere.

A natural balance is important

Like all life forms, also microbes need nutrients to grow and divide. They grow wherever they find nourishment that is suitable for them: in dirt, on the skin of humans or the wet chipboard. Some of the microbes are very demanding with nourishment and only grow in carefully selected environments. Less demanding species, on the other hand, can grow on different kinds of platforms. This causes competition among the microbes in the nature.

Balance is, however, essential. Luoma illustrates this with lupins which in Finland are considered as nuisance because they spread around and conquer space from other flowers and plants. This happens because lupins fix effectively nitrogen from the atmosphere with its root nodules and creates nutrients for itself. Daisies and other meadow flowers demand more from the soil. “The balance of nature is pretty fragile”, Luoma emphasizes.

The human body works in a similar manner against pathogens. Pathogens are demanding and they require favourable circumstances and space from other microbes. The normal microbial flora prevents the microbes that cause diseases from growing by using itself the space pathogens would require to flourish.

The natural balance of microbes can easily be shaken. This happens often when humans create atypical circumstances for microbes. Good example of this is building houses. When the building materials get wet some of the microbes benefit of this environment. When the moisture evaporates, left are the microbes that can also survive in drier conditions.

Concrete can host a different population of microbes than wood or wall papers. Some microbes use the chemicals of the vinyl flooring glue of as their growing medium. Inside buildings some microbes can find favourable circumstances instead of competing of living space in nature with thousands of other species. These atypical circumstances can cause changes in the profile of microbes that for their part can cause harmful symptoms to humans.

The next part of the series of blog posts will cover the impact that microbes have on the health and well-being of humans. How can we benefit from microbes and why is the lack of them harmful for us?

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